Alachua County School Board chair discusses new position, goals for the district
Alachua County School Board Chair Tina Certain was sworn into a new role as president of the Florida School Boards Association this month. She starts in July. WUFT’s Kristin Moorehead spoke with her to discuss her goals for the association — a statewide advocacy group — and the district.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First, can you tell me about your new position as President of the Florida School Boards Association? What are some of your new responsibilities and what are you looking forward to taking on?
Certain: The Florida School Boards Association is an organization made up of elected school board members from around the state of Florida. And the purpose of the state association, or FSBA as we call it, is for professional development for school board members and advocacy for public education. That professional development includes an education committee or training committee that trains or puts together a curriculum to train newly elected board members. And then there's also continuing training on different topics that would impact school board members.
We also advocate for public education. So that includes advocacy in training and assisting, being a resource for each other so that we can interact or be more effective at our local boards in each of our counties.
What got you interested in running for this more statewide position, and what do you think you bring to this organization that you either didn't see being brought before or that you think is unique?
Certain: I connected with the state association as a new board member when I was newly elected. Running for office and serving in office are two different things. So I got involved with our state association and met other board members from other counties.
I had a board member encourage me to connect with the organization. And that was a particular interest to me because I felt that in Alachua County, we were kind of stagnant and I wanted to improve in our district to start doing some of the progressive things and reaching more students, especially students who are underserved.
I didn't particularly want to run for office. Almost three years ago, a treasurer position came open, and I'm an accountant by trade. The lady who told me to get connected on the committee called me and says, “You're an accountant, I'm going to nominate you to serve for treasurer.” So I was elected treasurer and I served as treasurer that year for the FSBA. After serving as treasurer, I was nominated to serve as president-elect. I'm just ending my term as president-elect, and July 1, I'll officially become president.
How do you plan on balancing all of your different responsibilities, both as chair of the Alachua County School Board and president of this association?
Certain: Both positions have their different lanes that kind of run parallel to each other. Locally as the chair of our county, I am the person who leads the meeting. I do agenda review…I have no more authority or power than the other four elected members, right? And then we have staff here at the local office, and our superintendent has the bulk of the work.
At the state level, we have a CEO of the organization, and we have a whole staff in office in Tallahassee, and then I have committee chairs and vice chairs that work under us. So it's a teamwork effort. I'm not a one-man-band person. If there's any type of conflict, you take care of your local district before you take care of the state. I just have to reach out to our executive director or the president-elect, because the president-elect's job is to support the president.
Before COVID-19, school boards and school board meetings weren't really a controversial topic, but then people got a lot more invested in local school districts. Can you elaborate on some of the things you've learned because of the COVID pandemic?
Certain: I was elected in 2018 and often before I was elected, probably for three and a half years, I attended the school board meetings. There were very few people in the audience, myself, a friend, and then staff. There were usually more staff than citizens. And so what I learned, what COVID did was get a lot of people engaged. It was a lot of unknown, and school districts like Alachua County, like other school districts in the state and around the state, had to pivot quickly.
A lot of society depends on the education system. They wanted schools open because people needed something to do with their children. They needed them occupied so that they can go to work. So what we did see on full display is the value and the importance of educators. We already knew it, but it was in full display.
COVID brought out some good things, but it also bought out some things that we are still dealing with here. And I think the attack on public education and I think folks who are wanting to privatize and who have been doing things for the past 25-plus years to privatize and to destroy or destabilize public education, they use the pandemic to drive a bigger wedge, to destabilize the educational system.
I think COVID also revealed some things that weren't working well for certain students, demographics of students. They weren't working well pre-COVID and COVID exposed that and exacerbated that. Some students didn't have access, the digital divide. If you didn't have stable internet to be able to handle Zoom and the graphics and things that teachers use to present, that meant you had to make the decision to either come to school or not be connected and you missed out on lessons.
And those students who live in rural areas a lot of times are low-income students, and they may live in multi-generational households. So when students went to school, then you could also be a carrier, go to school and contract COVID, and then bring it back home to an elderly or sick relative.
Speaking on this, in Alachua County there's a wide disparity between students who have access to things like internet, and then there's also students who maybe come from more rural areas, who are more underprivileged. And this is not just an issue in Alachua County, but across the state and across the country. How is the county working to lower that achievement gap? And do you think that your new statewide position will allow you to address this issue in a new capacity?
Certain: I am that voice. The disparities that you talk about are one of the main reasons why I ran. I have been a follower of our local district for a number of years when my children were in school and I noticed the disparity by being a parent and a citizen, reading the paper.
And I have been the voice and will continue to be the voice of those students who are at the margins, underserved, marginalized, low socioeconomic, rural. Our district at Alachua County and other districts do a very good job of serving high-performing or on-grade-level students. But those students who come with some challenges, I don't think we do our best in serving them.
At the state level, we have this new voucher expansion bill —HB1/SB202 —it's law now. So now what we want to give feedback on to the legislature is to make it more equitable. Because you say you have this voucher bill so that everybody will have school choice and they can seek out better educational opportunities, but if you have a private school that their tuition is more than the voucher, that in essence excludes you because your family, if you're poor, you can't pay more than $8,500. Then you also have to provide transportation, you don't have access to school lunch. How are we going to level the playing field? My advocacy will be around ensuring that every student can take advantage of this expanded voucher.
I want public schools to be the choice of everyone. I don't want the affluent and the well-resourced to be able to take the voucher and skim off a whole lot of resources and take that to private schools or religious schools that are not held to the same accountability standards. And what's left in the public school will be the students who have disabilities, who come to school needing more support, but we have fewer resources to provide to students.
So that's just one example. And here, I have been advocating for access and opportunities, having a stable workforce and well-trained school principals and leadership as well as well-trained and experienced instructional staff so that we can deliver high quality instruction to all students.
We're not doing that right now, and we weren't doing it pre-COVID, and it's even getting more challenging because of the attacks that educators are experiencing. People are leaving the field. If we have an exodus of staff at a higher rate than we have new people coming in, that means we're going to have staffing shortages. And where those shortages have shown themselves have been in high poverty schools or schools that have a large number of minority students. So my advocacy will be around us distributing the vacancies around the district and not just having them in one or two schools.